The following article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Science of Mind magazine (www.scienceofmind.com).
The Mail-Order Prophet
Frank B. Robinson, Psychiana, and the Rise and Fall of a Religion-by-Mail
By Mitch Horowitz
It was religion with a money-back guarantee.
From the onset of the Great Depression to the years immediately following World War Two, a solidly built Idaho druggist named Frank B. Robinson used ads in newspapers, magazines, and on radio to create one of the most unusual religious movements in American history. He called it Psychiana and its ideas were bedrock New Thought, packaged and sold to an audience of unprecedented proportions. Indeed, by Robinson’s death, he had signed on enough subscriber-based members – estimates went as high as two million – to be able to claim stewardship over the eighth-largest religion on the planet.
“And the best thing about it,” as he liked to say, “is that we guarantee results or your money refunded. I guess it’s about the only ‘money-back’ religion in the world.”
Today, however, Robinson and Psychiana are completely forgotten. The names appear in no major work of American religious history from the last forty years. And the college town of Moscow, Idaho, where Robinson began his short-lived rise to religious fame and ran his mail-order empire, now marks his memory only on the sign of a park he donated to the county.
But Robinson’s pioneering techniques as a media evangelist – particularly his early grasp of mail-order marketing and his popularization of creative-mind principles – touched the nation in ways that have far out-lived his movement. Indeed, the success of Psychiana revealed America’s hunger for practical religious ideas during a period in which traditional congregations were shrinking. What’s more, Robinson’s little-known speaking campaigns with Science of Mind founder Ernest Holmes emphasized themes of social equality and religious pluralism at a time when many American churches remained mired in segregation.
While short lived, the Holmes-Robinson collaboration suggested the heights to which Robinson’s movement could have soared had the mail-order impresario reached out to a flesh-and-blood congregation, rather than rely on advertising and correspondence courses alone. But that was a road not taken. Instead, the Psychiana movement went rudderless and sank after its founder and guiding light died in 1948.
Here is a story of triumph gained and quickly lost, at the hands of remarkably gifted and, in some respects, remarkably flawed religious leader. Within the folds of his movement’s successes and failures appears one of the most intriguing, and least known, chapters in twentieth-century religious life.
The “New Psychological Religion”
Robinson’s method was disarmingly simple – so much so that advertising executives doubted it could ever work. Beginning in 1928, Robinson took out a series of ads in American magazines. “I talked with God,” they boldly proclaimed. “Yes I Did – Actually and Literally…You too may experience that strange mystical power which comes from talking with God, and when you do, if there is poverty, unrest, unhappiness, ill-health or material lack in your life, well – the same Power is able to do for you what it did for me.” $20 in cash bought twenty lessons in the power of affirmative thought, one arriving every two weeks.
Within a year of his first ad, Robinson had sold more than a half-million lesson plans. Mainstream clergy had no idea what to think. Here was a strange new teaching sweeping the American landscape. The ease and promise of its ideas appealed to a nation starved for practical answers during the gloom of the Great Depression. Even the name “Psychiana” – which Robinson called the “new psychological religion” – seemed to herald something new and exotic.
As Psychiana grew, Robinson kept up with thousands of correspondents who wrote him with personal questions or requests for prayer. Moscow’s tiny post-office was flooded with letters – sometimes postmarked no more than “Psychiana, U.S.A.” or “Doctor Robinson, Idaho” or even “The Man Who Talked With God, Idaho.” Robinson proudly escorted journalists on tours of his Moscow headquarters showing them correspondence from towns and cities all over America. From random mounds, he would pull letters ranging from the touching tribute of a West Virginia homemaker who reported that she had purchased a new typewriter and refrigerator – “your wonderful teaching has blessed me with a typewriter maching i don’t know much about typeing so please excuse all unspelt words” – to heartfelt telegrams from healed sufferers of arthritis and even blindness.
Several years before World War II, Robinson received a bizarre note of tribute from the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. After the start of the war, Robinson publicly responded to the ruler, urging that he “refrain from joining Hitler in his crusade of madness.” There came no reply. As war clouds thickened, Robinson – ever adaptable to the needs of the moment – reconfigured Psychiana as a spiritual army for Allied victory. Rallying his flock to what he termed “A ‘Blitzkrieg’ for God,” the Idaho prophet mailed followers buttons with Hitler’s image coupled with the vow: “I am helping to bring Hitler’s defeat by repeating hourly: the power of Right (God) will bring your speedy downfall.”
During the war, Robinson cabled Finland’s Premier Risto Ryti with a plan for using mental affirmations to help repel Axis forces, proposing that Psychiana members – along with the Finnish cabinet and army – spend 15 minutes daily affirming:The power of God is superior to the powers of war, hate, and evil. The embattled premier replied that he would enact Robinson’s plan as soon as “practicable.”
In the mail, in advertisements, in the news – everywhere one looked, it seemed – there was Frank B. Robinson.
The Gathering Storm
For all the love of his followers, Robinson attracted equal invective from his critics. They called him a “religious racketeer,” a “mail-order prophet,” and “a doctor of Bunk.” Indeed, Robinson’s “doctorate” was from an Indianapolis correspondence college of metaphysics. He claimed other diplomas, but could be known to abruptly cut off questioners who deigned to ask about them. “That’s none of your business,” he wrote one student.
On the national stage, the postmaster hit Robinson with two unsuccessful investigations for mail fraud. The federal government even began deportation proceedings after a rival publisher accused Robinson of lying about his place of birth on a passport application. But, as Robinson recalled in his 1941 memoir,The Strange Life of Frank B. Robinson: “If you want to make anyone – persecute them.” With every assault from the press and pulpit, Robinson’s presence seemed only to grow.
By the 1940s, Psychiana claimed about a million members, and Robinson reasonably surmised that his lessons were regularly circulated beyond the hands of a single subscriber, each one reaching perhaps two to ten people. Ads for Psychiana reached an estimated twelve million homes a year. Robinson’s lectures ran on more than eighty radio stations. It was, observed religious journalist Marcus Bach, as though “a prophet had spoken in his own country.”
Whether or not a prophet, Robinson was a confirmed phenomenon; though he didn’t quite a have “his own country.” Indeed, Robinson’s murky origins formed the basis of a deeply troubled childhood and of problems that would haunt him later in his life.
A Prophet without a Country
Nothing about Robinson’s birth is quite clear, except for the agreed upon year: 1886. He was born to a hard-drinking English minister – though whether in America or England is a matter of dispute. Regardless of his native land, Robinson and his three younger brothers grew up in ice-hard circumstances. At just eight years old, Robinson watched his mother, Hannah, die of pneumonia in the bedroom of their dreary row house in Halifax, England. After Hannah’s death, Robinson’s father – a small-town Baptist preacher with a fiery temper and a taste for liquor – turned on his sons with a vengeance. Punishments were frequent and brutal. But it was when the Reverend JH Robinson remarried, Robinson wrote in a rare understatement, that “the real trouble began.”
The Robinson boys fought so bitterly with their stepmother that arguments exploded into physical fights. Robinson’s father decided to enlist his 13-year-old son in the British Navy – a fiasco that last about six months, when the youth jumped ship and fled back home. Determined to push him from the house, the elder Robinson than packed up a 14-year-old Frank, and his 12-year-old brother Sydney, put a total of $5 in their pockets, and sent them on a steamer to Canada. The only arrangements the minister made for them was a letter of introduction to a Baptist preacher who lived eight hundred miles from where the boys docked. Upon reaching their intended sponsor’s home, the boys were shooed away, left to sleep in a hayloft.
When Sydney fell ill with the same disease that had killed his mother, the boys wired back home to dad – and were told goodbye and good luck. Sydney survived, but the period that followed was no easier. As the years passed, Frank B. Robinson discovered a crippling habit: binge drinking. In what must be a record of sorts, the young Robinson earned the distinction of being kicked out of the British Navy, the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, and eventually the US Army and Navy.
But friends and employers detected the spark of something unusual in the youthful Robinson: He was strikingly handsome, articulate, and bore a surprisingly educated gait for someone who had never made it beyond grade school. Bouncing between Canada and the US, Robinson joined local churches and the Salvation Army, intensely interested in the “Power of the Great Spirit” – yet also profoundly skeptical of the fire-and-brimstone religion of his youth. Debating theology with preachers and missionaries, Robinson displayed an innate shrewdness for catching inconsistencies. The young knockabout also began to self-study the world’s religions, in which he discovered intriguing similarities.
In his early twenties, Robinson captured the attention of a Toronto millionaire, who offered to put him through MacMaster University’s Bible Training School. But the new Bible student immediately clashed with teachers and peers. Robinson insisted that Eastern or pre-Christian religions had their own stories of humanity’s fall from grace and even of a “crucified god.” Why, he asked his benefactor, should any one religion hold a monopoly on truth? His scholarship at Bible Training School hit an abrupt end.
A Search Bears Fruit
Always a quick study, Robinson became a certified druggist and found steady work for the first time. He married the well-regarded daughter of an Oregon judge. Under his new wife Pearl’s influence, Robinson settled into sobriety and a stable home life. In order for Frank to accept a new job, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where they had a son. By age forty-two, Frank Robinson’s life at last seemed to be calming down. But his search for God had left him with a lingering sense of emptiness.
In a single Sunday, however, everything changed. One morning, Robinson attended a gloomy church service on Wilshire Boulevard. In the massively ornate chapel, with its plush carpets and oaken pews, he counted only twenty-six worshippers. Something in mainstream faith was dying, he thought. Robinson returned home and retreated alone to his room. Dejected with the Baptism of his youth, uninspired by the religious offerings of the present, the no-longer-young man pleaded to be shown something more – challenging God to reveal himself.
“Oh, God,” he cried, “if I have to go to hell, I’ll go with the consciousness that I went there earnestly trying to find you, God.” Rather than feeling condemned or hopeless, however, Robinson found that a strange sense of peace settled over him. He felt powerful yet relaxed – as though lifted to some other place. He later said that he sensed the spirit of Divinity pulsing within him, as though filling his veins and arteries. Suddenly he knew that the God for which he had been searching was really inside him – and, through the use of thought, could be tapped as a limitless resource.
He determined to spread his discovery of “a workable, useable God.” Robinson quickly moved with his wife and young son to the small town of Moscow, Idaho – for the sole purpose of accepting a job at a pharmacy that closed at 6 p.m. Punching out early allowed the Corner Drug Store’s counter clerk to begin writing the lessons that would form the basis of his “new psychological religion.”
One Saturday night, Robinson sat at his borrowed Corona typewriter and hit the keys for thirty-six hours straight. When he stopped, he held the lesson plan that would deliver the “God law” into the hands of ordinary men and women. National advertising would carry his voice to them. But ads cost big money – and Robinson’s total assets were $25.
Robinson looked everywhere to raise funds. Approaching a local highway commissioner, a farmer, a bank teller, and a grocery clerk, he scrambled together $500. But a Spokane advertising agency told him not to waste his money. So, on his own, Robinson spent almost all of it on a single ad inPsychology Magazine. Even Robinson was surprised when the one notice attracted more than 5,000 replies and netted $13,000 in cash. He wasted no time: In newspapers, magazines, and radio stations across America, Robinson proclaimed Psychiana a “money-back religion,” promising unlimited potential – or a full refund – to any who tried it. Within a year, the teachings reached 600,000 students in sixty-seven nations. And so was born the mass movement called Psychiana.
The Psychiana Method
Robinson took a bold tack on religion, insisting that its results should be measurable and provable. Hence, the question is inevitable: Did Robinson’s ideaswork?
Religious historian Charles S. Braden knew Robinson in the 1940s and remarked on how his lessons had a way of “awakening, through the power of suggestion, a lively sense of expectancy in the student.” Enthusiasm, as Carl Jung once noted, is the hidden key to the effectiveness of any belief system. Even today – surrounded by an endless stream of practical spiritual ideas and programs – it is possible for a reader to get swept up in the tone of portent and certainty that permeates Robinson’s first lesson, in which he encourages the repeat use of his key mantra: “I believe in the power of living God.” Other affirmations quickly follow – “I am more and more successful” – and Robinson prescribes simple, specific methods, such as meditating before falling asleep on a “white spot” that one sees when closing the eyes. This spot, he wrote, is the thin veil that separates humanity from the Divine.
Robinson’s methods were often very direct: “You must speak to God aloud,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Whenever Jesus needed the God-Power, He made His request audible. That is a great secret.” Or elsewhere, “The Power of God always works best in an emergency! When you are troubled, threatened, or disturbed, go into a quiet place. You will be strengthened and filled with power.”
While he would claim his ideas were wholly original, Robinson stood on the shoulders of an already well-established American spiritual philosophy: New Thought. On the whole, Robinson’s techniques were the same as those that had been attracting American seekers to the principles of positive thinking since the late nineteenth century. When Robinson cited literary influences, he mentioned the Unity classic Lessons in Truth by H. Emilie Cady. He also noted a seven-volume 1926 work called The Secret of the Ages, by businessman and motivational writer Robert Collier.
But Robinson reserved his deepest praise for the figure of Ernest Holmes, whom he called “one of the most lovable and sincere men of all time.” Which brings us to what may have been the Idaho prophet’s finest hour.
“American Spiritual Awakening”
There is one known surviving photograph from an event that ought to make anyone interested in New Thought and Religious Science feel proud. It shows two men – Ernest Holmes seated on the left, Frank Robinson seated on the right – gently smiling at each other across the stage of the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles. A packed crowd of 3,500 looks on. While not visible from the photograph, a banner draped across the stage proclaims Robinson’s key aphorism: “I Believe in the Power of the Living God.” The year was 1941 and the two spiritual teachers were rallying the faithful for a series of five meetings that Robinson called the “Holmes-Robinson Spiritual Awakening,” or the “American Spiritual Awakening.”
The meeting was a kind of spiritual booster rally before America’s all-but-inevitable entry into World War II. But the resulting program became something far more: An affirmation of the universality of all religious beliefs and national backgrounds, moving one columnist for an African-American newspaper to write at the time: “If it does for you what it has done for me, you would not take a hundred dollars for attending this meeting.”
At a moment in history when ideological systems and ethnic hatred were plunging nations into war – and when many American churches remained segregated – the message of plurality that pervades the surviving transcripts of the Robinson-Holmes mission seems almost prophetic. Ernest Holmes opened the first meeting on Sunday, September 21, leaving no mistake as to his feelings for his co-speaker and their shared values:
Dr. Robinson calls his work “Psychiana” which means bringing Spiritual Power to the world. I happen to belong to a movement called “Religious Science,” which means the same thing. Some of you may go to a Jewish Synagogue; you may be a Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, but there is but one God. We meet here today not on a theological background, but upon the foreground of a spiritual conception, the common meeting ground of every race, every creed, every color, every philosophy, and every religion on the face of the earth.
Calling their religiously and racially diverse audience “Beloved,” Frank B. Robinson extended Holmes’s remarks the next day:
Now, Beloved, when the Almighty created the human race, He created black, white, yellow, and every other color which exists on earth, in one creation. He did not make three or four special jobs of creation, nor did he make several different attributes, one for each nation. He made them all flesh and blood – every human soul that has ever lived on the face of this earth. We are all brothers, regardless of our religious affiliation, our race, or nationality.
While known as a political conservative – Robinson ardently opposed the New Deal and supported each of the Republican opponents to Franklin Roosevelt – here was a religious leader who, together with Holmes, was making social statements that would not become common fare until at least a quarter-century later.
The five-day series was so popular that Robinson made a return visit to LA three weeks later. And he and Holmes drew up arrangements for The Institute of Religious Science to offer graduate training to students who had already passed through the Psychiana lessons. It was the start of a plan to certify Psychiana teachers and practitioners, possibly for a nationwide congregational mission that would take Psychiana beyond its reliance on mail-order lessons. Joint advertising literature was printed, featuring Robinson and Holmes together with the headline: “When You Have Decided to Enroll for This Teacher’s and Practitioner’s Course, both Ernest Holmes and Dr. Robinson will Help You.”
In the end, however, the Holmes-Robinson partnership became little more than a wistful reminder of what might have been. Robinson showed little interest in the face-to-face management of a flock, preferring instead to work privately on his books, lessons, ads, and radio addresses. The two men drifted apart, each to his separate plans.
It is one of the more intriguing “what ifs?” of twentieth-century religious history to consider the possibilities had the religious leaders remained together. Between Robinson’s million-strong movement and Holmes’s well-established seminary and churches, it is entirely possible that Psychiana might have survived the death of its founder, perhaps becoming one of the most formidable movements under the New Thought banner. But by Robinson’s death – about seven years from the day that he and Holmes first spoke together – his movement foundered and then collapsed.
Remains of the Day
A robust, athletic man, Robinson nonetheless had a weak heart. A series of cardiac failures in the mid-1940s caught up with him by October 1948, when he died at 63. Shocked followers around the nation flooded the Psychiana offices with telegrams of condolence, praising the man who many said had given them a fresh start in life. But with new students dwindling and bills mounting, the family was forced to close Psychiana’s doors by January 1953.
The memories faded quickly. When the Daily Idahonian ran a history of the town of Moscow in 1961, not a word appeared about Frank B. Robinson or Psychiana. It was as if neither had ever existed. What caused Psychiana’s abrupt fall? Several factors seem paramount:
- Robinson cultivated no deputies. And, in the absence of independent congregations, no new leaders naturally emerged. He was a messenger without apostles.
- Unlike figures such as Ernest Holmes and Joseph Murphy, Robinson self-published all of his own books and pamphlets. Hence, no organization outside his own stood to benefit from the sale and maintenance of his works after he was gone.
- The last factor is perhaps the most important: Robinson succeeded to the extent that other religious movements adopted his outreach methods and self-help message. “It was no longer a sin,” observed Bach, “to personalize the faith and make it serve the needs and wants of man.” In the end, the times had caught up with the “Miracle Man of Moscow.”
Robinson was probably the first religious figure of the twentieth century to fully grasp the power of advertising and mail-order marketing. But he was more than just that. With only a deeply held conviction and a few hundred dollars in ad money, he brought attention to the neglected needs of millions of people who wanted religion to provide practical guidance in daily life.
Further still, Robinson lived out his message, rising from decrepitude to achievement, and providing not just a set of ideas but a personage in whom people from all walks of life could vest their hopes.
To Learn More about Psychiana
From the late 1920s to the late 1940s, Frank B. Robinson created many different versions of his mail-order lesson plans. While building them around common themes, Robinson organized his lessons into sequences of ten, twelve, twenty, and even seventy-five booklets. He classified different lesson plans as “basic,” “advanced,” or by other categories. Robinson frequently updated his lessons to accommodate new developments in science or current events.
Two websites currently post complete sets of different Psychiana study plans:
- The Northwoods Divine Science Resource Center, an independent Divine Science e-ministry, posts Robinson’s ten-part series from 1930 at:http://www.angelfire.com/wi2/ULCds/psychianaA.html. This website also includes the downloadable text of other writings by Robinson.
- Robinson’s twenty-part “Advanced Course” from 1932 appears at:www.johnblack.com/Psychiana/lessons.html. This personal website of Moscow, Idaho resident John Black also features a wide range of information about Robinson and Psychiana.
Also of interest, in 1991 the Latah County (Idaho) Historical Society (http://users.moscow.com/lchs/) published an outstanding limited-edition pamphlet on Psychiana, written by historian Keith C. Petersen. As of this writing, copies remain available through the Society.